This is the exact situation Johns Hopkins and Loyola were hoping to avoid.
When the No. 20 Blue Jays and the No. 12 Greyhounds meet on Saturday at noon at Ridley Athletic Complex in Baltimore, it's conceivable that the losing team will be sitting at home next weekend while the winner prepares for the NCAA tournament.
So with that scenario at stake, the proximity of these two schools on Charles Street and Johns Hopkins' 44-3 advantage in this series, is there room for any more hype?
"What do you think?" Loyola coach Charley Toomey asked with a laugh. "No way. It's a huge game for Johns Hopkins, and, obviously, we put ourselves in a position where it's a big game for Loyola. With all that said, it's a great rivalry that we certainly have enjoyed here at Loyola, and it's a great way to end the regular season. … It doesn't get any bigger and any better for a student-athlete."
The outcome of Saturday's game will likely have a significant effect on the NCAA tournament. A win by the Greyhounds (9-3) guarantees them an at-large bid and cements a losing record for the Blue Jays, who need at least a .500 mark to earn consideration by the NCAA selection committee.
A win by Johns Hopkins (6-7) — coupled with the team's strong Rating Percentage Index (RPI) and strength of schedule — could pave the way for the school to advance to the NCAA tournament. A Blue Jays victory could prevent Loyola from qualifying for the tournament for the second consecutive season. Another scenario involves both teams making the field and leaving a school such as Georgetown, Hofstra or Villanova out of the tournament.
ESPN analyst and former Johns Hopkins midfielder Mark Dixon thinks the Greyhounds are clearly on the bubble.
"If you look at Loyola, they beat Georgetown, and that win could loom large because you have the Hoyas out there circling around for an at-large berth," Dixon said. "But they've got to knock Hopkins off. They've got to put the dagger through the Blue Jays' heart because if they lose, then Hopkins is in play for an at-large berth. If Loyola can take care of Hopkins, that's one less team that they've got to worry about on Selection Sunday."
The Greyhounds have been in this position before. Last spring, they needed to beat the Blue Jays in the regular-season finale for both teams, but Johns Hopkins prevailed in double overtime, 11-10. The following day, Loyola learned that its season was over.
"We didn't make the playoffs last year after being on the bubble, and we don't want to go through those feelings again," Greyhounds senior attackman Cooper MacDonnell said. "I think if we beat Hopkins on Saturday, we avoid that completely. It was the worst, not knowing if we were going to make the tournament or not and having to sit there on Selection Sunday with our fate in the hands of the selection committee. So this is absolutely huge for us."
The same could be said for the Blue Jays, who are also dealing with the weight of tradition. The school has not missed the NCAA tournament since 1971 — the tournament's first year — and this year's senior class is fully aware that the team is at risk of ending a streak of 38 consecutive appearances.
"I guess it's in the back of your mind occasionally," senior defenseman Sam DeVore said. "But we're in this position right now, and we're just looking forward. Obviously, the tradition of Hopkins lacrosse is one of the richest — if not the richest — in the country. We're just approaching this week like every other game. We're going into it with a full head of steam and trying to work as hard as we can."
The Blue Jays haven't played since routing Towson, 13-6, on April 28, but the time off has given the players an opportunity to focus on exams and the coaches a chance to scout and study Loyola.
As he has all along, coach Dave Pietramala compared Saturday's contest to a first-round playoff game. Win and the team's season is extended for another week. Lose and the players and coaches can begin thinking about next year.
"For us, it is the most important game of the year," Pietramala said. "If we win, we have a chance to be considered. If we lose, we're not even in the conversation. It's over. We're aware of that. But we have to concentrate on what we can control — our performance right now in practice and our performance on Saturday."